(Edit: June 28 2013. 3 months after the initial review, I dislike this phone greatly. As preexisting apps cannot be uninstalled, when those apps upgrade themselves over time, the internal memory runs out of space. This causes some of those apps to no longer run. I get a Twitter crash notification every day. Beyond that, I cannot message some people via SMS and it’s not clear why. Some people I can message, others I cannot. Phone numbers are not recognized well – a number saved in your phone with () or dashes might not be recognized when that user actually calls. At this point, I guess I can still say it is worth $40. But, it’s really just worth $40.)
In Vietnam, the cheapest, most affordable device I could find was the Gionee Pocket, currently listed at 990,000 VND, or about $47 USD. I got mine about 6 weeks ago, on sale from TheGioiDiDong for only about $40 and have been using it for the last 3 weeks. Gionee seems to be a Chinese manufacturer, and I couldn’t find a working official website for them, even from their instruction manual. In Vietnam, there’s http://www.gioneemobile.com.vn/, which seems to be run by their local distributor, Phoenix.
Let’s go over the specs and I’ll add commentary as well:
- 240 x 320 Resolution, 2.8 inch Screen – the Pocket’s screen is better than the one on the popular Samsung Galaxy Y, which is also nearly 3 times as expensive. Others who have looked at both the Y and the Pocket confirmed to me that the Pocket’s screen is clearly better. Touchscreen recognition was good, though the feel of the touchscreen seems slightly “off”, at least in comparison to that of a iPhone 4S or Nokia E71. Maybe it feels more plasticky than hard glass?
- Dual (2) SIM Support – I don’t have any extra girlfriends on the side, so I haven’t been able to use this feature yet. Nonetheless, it’s a surprising feature for so cheap a phone and something that I think a lot of Vietnamese want; it’s very common to see Vietnamese with multiple phones.
- 3 Colored Shells – customize the back of your phone with shells in black, pink, or a light aqua blue – again, a nice touch considering the price of the phone.
- No External Memory Included – to be expected. With the internal memory, you really can’t install anything new – the Pocket comes with a good number of default apps, which unfortunately cannot be uninstalled. For new apps, you are free to add a microsd up to 32GB; I installed a 2GB taken from my old Nokia E71 instead.
- 1.3MP Camera – I took the photos the below with the Students’ View Viet Nam app, which has some nice filters. It’s certainly not a great camera, but some filters and creativity can go a long way to hides its weaknesses. (For more on the Students’ View photo contest, see http://www.studentview.vn/)
- No 3G but Wifi and Bluetooth – No 3G, which probably is better for the battery anyway, but you can still get push email updates over GPRS Edge. Edge is terribly slow in Vietnam, but at least you can be notified of emails and read text, which get loaded in the background. Wifi support works fine. I didn’t try Bluetooth.
- 1280 mAh Battery – I have to recharge the phone every 2 to 3 days.
- 1 GHZ CPU – this was surprising to me as other lower tier phones have only 800MHZ or even 600 MHZ CPUs. The cheapest phone has the fastest chip – I am assuming devices running Android can be compared apples to apples for CPUs. I haven’t tested any games or anything that would really test out the CPU, but apps responded well. You don’t feel the phone is slow.
- No GPS - combined with the lack of 3G, this makes mapping and location-based features basically worthless as you become too dependent on needing Wifi to be able to do anything.
- Android 2.3.6 (Gingerbread) Operating System (OS) – Gingerbread is an older Android version and though the Pocket cannot be updated, it wasn’t a problem. I had heard criticism of Android’s UI in the past, but it works fine. It’s not beautiful, but it works reasonably well, even with the lower resolution screen. I imagine the UI implementation is pretty close to the stock Android UI. I do feel that Android isn’t particularly intuitive for inexperienced tech users. The iPhone created some difficulties for me as well, but menus and buttons are usually rendered in iOS apps, while for Android you have to remember to bring up the designated (but not labeled) Options / Menu button on the device itself. I had to keep getting reminded of this by coworkers when I complained I had no idea what to do with certain apps.
- Google Play – I really like using Google Play to install apps. It’s much easier and faster than using iTunes, either on the web or directly on the phone. For whatever reason, certain apps such as Google Chrome cannot be installed (Google Play specifically says it’s not compatible), but I was able to use popular apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Mimo, Instagram, YouTube, Skype, Opera Mini (but not Opera) and Gmail. Android phones also have the advantage of being able to install .apk (app) files manually, which basically means you can load test software or pirate them. For testing, this is a huge assistance as it’s a tremendous pain to prep an iPhone for testing. From the developer’s standpoint of selling apps, however, this means easy piracy.
Because you’re able to sync your contacts, email, and calendar with Google’s apps, this can make managing your phone and linking your desktop tools much easier. I actually mainly use Outlook and Office, so I had to use Go Contact Sync Mod in order to sync my Outlook contacts with Google. For the casual user and target customer of this phone, however, I doubt they would know or spend the time to do this. Skype, Twitter, and Facebook apps on Android do let you integrate your contacts on those networks with the ones on the phone, and I think this IS something that Vietnamese users will appreciate.
I disliked that the contacts from multiple services aren’t automatically combined as one however. You may see the same friend listed multiple times with different information in each – it would be nice to have some way to merge those. In general, contacts works ok, but searching for them causes a headache as the Pocket’s Android UI requires me to always take an extra button press more than I think should be necessary. Some of this issue is likely exacerbated by the low screen resolution – when I search I feel like I can’t see what I want to see, that the keyboard is always blocking my view.
The biggest problem I have with the Gionee Pocket is its keyboard. Touchscreen recognition for typing works reasonably well, but with the smaller screen, it’s harder to type accurately with all the keys squeezed in. I have this problem with the iPhone as well, which is why I normally rotate the screen and type on the wider keyboard. While the Pocket does have the OS feature to automatically rotate the screen (it works for certain apps), there is no rotated keyboard. This keyboard issue started to become a deal breaker for me, which led me to look for keyboard alternatives. The fact you can do this is a plus for Android devices; Apple iOS devices are stuck with the one keyboard type.
I ended up trying one of the most popular Android apps today, Swype: http://www.swype.com/
It’s a replacement keyboard that operates you on moving your finger to the letters you are trying to type instead of pressing them individually. Swype then uses its smart autocorrection to guess the right word for you. For someone like me, this was worth trying, though the Swype keyboard also cannot be used in wide mode (or cannot be used in wide mode on the Pocket).
Swype supports multiple languages, including English and Vietnamese, and even lets you connect it to your Gmail, Facebook, personal website (through RSS), and Twitter accounts to learn more about how you write. I assume it looks through the words you use so it can suggest them more accurately when typing over the phone. For English, it works pretty well on the Pocket most of the time. For some reason, however, typing can become stalled and lagged. This happens while typing longer messages – the screen will stop responding for a couple of seconds. If you try to swipe/type anything when this happens, it won’t be picked up. I also noticed a lag opening the keyboard when you’re trying to reply to SMS. While the lost typing is a problem, the slight opening lag is more of a minor annoyance.
In addition to the lag problem, since I often type in a mix of English and Vietnamese or all Vietnamese with Vietnamese friends, this creates a lot of autocorrection errors. Even if I switch to the Vietnamese library, Swype won’t know all the words or shorthand I use, making so many errors that the keyboard is unusable. I don’t yet know how to to refuse an autocorrected entry, and though Swype also supports manual typing instead of swiping, the autocorrection issue remains. For now, my experience with Swype can be fantastic, atrocious, or a little of both, with experiences seemingly cut evenly at 33% of each type. Added to this is that the phone resets back to the default Android keyboard each time the phone is turned off or reset. Android has a great feature in which you can schedule the phone to be turned off during certain times (ex. at night) so you can save battery as well as sleep uninterrupted, but enabling this feature on the Pocket also means you have to switch the Swype keyboard back on each day.
All these issues combined make me want to type less on the phone and affect how much I want to use the phone. The phone should a natural extension of your life, but with a poor keyboard experience, the Pocket actively gives me reasons not to message people or respond to emails. For the targeted Pocket Owner, I am guessing they 1) won’t know of Swype 2) at best, pirate Swype 3) won’t find the settings required to optimize their experience, so this doesn’t help Swype or the Gionee Pocket user. For me, unless I can find a more consistent solution to typing over the long term, I do not think I can keep using this phone.
Verdict: For less than $50, I can’t argue too much against this phone. It’s a solid device and better than what I imagine a $50 phone should be. But with its non-rotating touch keyboard on a small screen, I would suggest trying the contact search and typing messages with it for at least 5 minutes before buying it. If you don’t run into any issues, I don’t think you will regret purchasing it. If you do have the same issues as me however, you may find yourself unable to use this smartphone to its full capabilities and not wanting to take the effort to struggle with it.